Spanish pomegranate season is upon us! But today we’re not just celebrating any old pomegranate: today we’re going to get up close and personal with this spectacular and singular fruit from Elche, in the Spanish region of Alicante.
The Granada Mollar de Elche, which has its own Protected Designation of Origin, is a unique crop whose origins date back to the 3rd century BC, as visible in pomegranate-engraved pottery found at the La Alcudia archeological site, a few kilometers south of Elche.
There are also commercial references to this fruit dating back to 1864, a period when pomegranate orchards started to replace the olive groves there; however, it wasn’t until recently that this product has become something of a local celebrity.
The arrival of PDO status
In fact, efforts to boost consumption, promote this variety and lay the groundwork towards eventually obtaining the Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) quality seal began in 2008, when a producer’s association was created.
PDO approval eventually arrived, in 2016, including more than 600 farmers and extending over 40 towns in three regions in southern Alicante: Vega Baja, Baix Vinalopó and L’Alacaní.
It also represented a major milestone for producers, as it “recognized the history behind the pomegranate, its tradition, the wisdom of the families of farmers passed down from generation to generation, the special weather and soil conditions, and the qualities that make these pomegranates unique,” says Francisco Oliva, President of the PDO Granada Mollar de Elche.
What makes these pomegranates special
There are more than 500 varieties of pomegranates in the world, but those from Elche stand out in particular for their sweet, soft seeds and intense color. On the outside, they vary in color from gold to bright red, depending on sun exposure. They’re considered a superfruit as they contain antioxidants, potassium, magnesium, zinc, copper, iron, calcium and vitamins C, B and E. They’re a low-calorie fruit with anti-inflammatory properties, and studies show that they may reduce cholesterol, delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease, and prevent certain types of cancer and also heart disease.
Beyond their flavor and appearance, these pomegranates are a cut above the rest, as Oliva says, because of the longstanding tradition in the area, the soil conditions and the weather, and producers’ extensive experience.
This is a very popular fruit, both in Spain and around the world. In fact, domestic consumption has increased by more than 20% in the last five years. During that same period, local producers have reduced exports, which originally stood at 70 to 80% of production, down to 60%, with the remaining 40% allocated to Spanish consumers.
The primary destination market is France, followed by the Netherlands, the UK, Belgium, Portugal and Italy. Producers are also gaining a foothold in other markets, which exports increasing to Southeast Asia, countries in the Persian Gulf, Canada, Brazil and the Scandinavian countries.
The impact of climate change
Pomegranate producers are facing the challenges of climate change, one of which is weather unpredictability. According to Oliva, the last four autumns have varied greatly, ranging from heavy rains to excessive heat, which in turn impacts the crops.
Says Oliva, “The Mollar Pomegranate from Elche... is a very genetically diverse variety, and that can be an advantage that allows for its adaptation and, therefore, for the survival of the species.”
To address the impact of climate change, producers are taking matters into their own hands, expanding their growing areas to include other zones where they previously hadn’t even considered planting pomegranates, and collaborating with various universities and scientific institutions to conduct research, share expertise and come up with viable strategies.
Marketing pomegranates from Elche
The PDO is working tirelessly to raise the profile of its extraordinary pomegranates, mainly in Spain with a view to strengthening the upward trend seen in recent years. There’s also a large focus on France, where there is considerable scope for growth and, to a lesser degree, other markets in Europe, where their pomegranates have been featured in media reports. The approach is to underline this fruit’s countless positive qualities, from its health benefits and quality guarantee to its flavor.
Marketing efforts also include the promotion of pomegranate consumption in multiple formats, i.e. not strictly in salads and for dessert, but also as an ingredient in different recipes.
To this end, the PDO has published several cookbooks, organized an international cooking competition, and leaned on top Michelin-star chefs—such as Paco Roncero, Quique Dacosta, and Albert Adrià—to launch their annual campaigns. It also teams up with gastronomy and nutrition influencers to promote pomegranates to their diverse audiences.
One of their most popular campaigns, which plays on the idea of “being great on the inside,” has gone viral. As part of another initiative, the PDO sends pomegranates to people native to Valencia who are living abroad so they can enjoy the flavors of their homeland.
Mollar Pomegranates from Elche are clearly in a class of their own. It’s no surprise that these have been a highly-esteemed fruit in various civilizations throughout history, given their sweet flavor and extensive health properties. As the PDO steps up its efforts to promote its pomegranates, we can expect its popularity to continue to soar.
Text: Samara Kamenecka/@ICEX